STONINGTON — District administrators and leadership with the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut are exploring an expanded partnership that would bring a school-based health clinic to Stonington High School.
With a new legislative session underway, officials are hopeful that the Child and Family Agency will be able to secure the funding needed to establish a health center in the high school that would provide a continuation of services already available to Stonington Middle School students, CFA Chief Executive Officer Allison Blake said.
“We’ve had a very straong partnership with the Stonington school district and there is a need to expand what connections are available for students when they transition from the middle school to the high school,” Blake said Tuesday.
“If you don’t have one at the high school, then as the students progress, they could potentially lose access to those supportive services they’ve grown accustomed to,” she continued.
Blake and Stonington Schools Superintendent Mary Anne Butler each cautioned that discussions remain in the exploratory stage and no funding has been secured yet. The concept was one that first came up in conversations in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced officials, both local and within the Child and Family Agency, to press pause to attend to more urgent matters.
With the pandemic now largely in the rear view and funding potentially available at the state level through the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Blake said the agency is once again working with legislators and state officials to try and secure funding to start up a health center at the high school.
Under the plan, the school-based health center would employ a full-time mental health professional and part-time Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, or APRN. Those positions would be funded through the Child and Family Agency — Blake said the startup cost would be approximately $125,000 — while the school district would be responsible for providing space and utilities. These expenses are already included and covered in the district’s annual budget, school officials said.
The Child and Family Agency is a New London-based organization that operates over a dozen school-based health centers in New London County. The organization also runs other programs in the region, including child care centers, medical care, outpatient mental health services and home-based intervention services.
“It may just be a possibility at this point, but this would provide an opportunity to have a lot of services our students need right on site,” Butler told members of the Board of Education last week. “These would cover shots and immunizations, it would provide mental health counseling and it would offer basic health services without students ever having to leave the school.”
Blake said that across the nation, the need for expanded mental health services has only grown in recent years and Stonington is no exception.
Recent data from the district has shown an expanded need to address issues with chronic absenteeism and classroom behavior. A fact sheet provided by the district shows that in the current year, 15 sophomores did not start school on time due to not receiving required annual physicals, while 96 sophomores are overdue for annual physicals.
Nationally, chronic absentee rates have soared above 20%, and in 2022, the district rate reached a high of 16%. The district had reduced the rate to as low as 8.7% in 2015 and had a rate of 9.2% prior to the pandemic disruption.
The problem has been even greater at Stonington High, where SHS Principal Alicia Dawe said in December that analysis showed that in spring 2022 the rate reached a high of 27.6%, “which is an alarming number.”
Data also suggests that school counselors are now spending approximately 80% of their time addressing student mental health needs, up from just 40% just before the start of the pandemic.
“These are all issues that a school-based health center would help address,” Blake said, noting that first the agency will need to secure state funding. “It is an important resource to address student needs, and now the focus is finding a way to make it a reality.”